This Q&A with grad student Matthew Tierney is the first post in a new series of Q&As with students at the Sanford-Burnham Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
Beaker: Why did you choose Sanford-Burnham?
Matthew Tierney: While I was at the University of Texas at Austin for my master’s degree in physiology, I gained a strong appreciation for the role that stem cells play in the maintenance and repair of different tissues of the body. After graduation, I began looking for a laboratory that studied this, and shortly thereafter began working with Alessandra Sacco, Ph.D., as a technician in the spring of 2010. I first came across Sanford-Burnham because of the outstanding reputation San Diego has as a scientific hotbed. I knew that at Sanford-Burnham, I’d have access to all the tools I needed to address my scientific questions and would be surrounded by scientists that could help me refine and answer those questions.
Joining the graduate program was an easy decision, as I had already found a great laboratory and enjoyed the work I was doing. Traditionally, a first-year graduate student will spend much of his time rotating with a few different labs. Under those circumstances, it can be very difficult to make significant progress until your second year. Sanford-Burnham let me take advantage of the fit I already had with Dr. Sacco, and I was able to jump directly into my thesis work. I still have coursework that is consistent with other universities, but I have more of a say in what I choose to study. I get to focus on the science I’m interested in, and the program complements that direction with a good balance of support and intellectual freedom.
Beaker: What’s your thesis research about?
MT: When skeletal muscle is injured, either by trauma or exercise, resident stem cells are responsible for regenerating the damaged tissue and restoring it to its fully functional state. I study the role these muscle stem cells play during both regeneration and development, when they support the establishment and growth of muscle in the developing embryo and later, in the growing adolescent. Other research groups have found that these muscle stem cells in the embryo, although developmentally related, are functionally distinct from those in the adult in a number of ways. I’ve found that there is a subset of these muscle stem cells during late fetal stages that possess a very robust regenerative potential, and we’re beginning to acquire evidence now that demonstrates their ability to regulate their own behavior in a cell-autonomous manner. They can do this by contributing to and shaping their own microenvironment more effectively than their adult counterparts, and these changes likely impact critical signaling pathways important for muscle stem cell proliferation, differentiation and self-renewal.
I’d like to spend the rest of my graduate studies learning more about the specific mechanisms underlying these processes, and also study what happens during development that cause these adaptations to occur. This could potentially provide us with new therapeutic targets to improve the regenerative potential of muscle stem cells and ameliorate pathological states that progress, at least in part, due to their functional impairment, including Duchenne muscular dystrophy and aging.
Beaker: What are your career aspirations?
MT: It’s my hope to eventually establish and lead my own team of researchers in a lab focused on a mixture of basic and pre-clinical science. I’d like to spend some time as a postdoc exploring another field that I can contribute to, but generally speaking, I believe I’ll continue in stem-cell research. Of course, the ultimate goal is to impact health care and improve the patient’s quality of life, but I also think that I can best do that by taking an innovative and original approach to the medical problems before us. Mostly, I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a little bit of of creativity, or serendipity, and leads to progress in my lab’s work.